Saturday, November 1, 2008

Learning in the Whau

For years, there has been uncertainty as to exactly when the first school in the Whau district (now Avondale and surrounding districts, including Henderson) opened and operated. Unfortunately, Presbyterian records for our area lodged with Presbyterian Archives in Dunedin don’t go back further than the 1880s, as with Avondale school committee records. The school also had no uninterrupted financial support from the provincial government, later the Crown, until 1864. At the moment, I’m compiling a study of the early Whau schools, from what records are at hand and available, but our earliest school did start 148 years ago.

The Whau Presbyterian Church, completed in time for Easter services in April 1860, was always intended to serve both as a church and as a school. Under education regulations at the time, the community were entitled to apply for Provincial Council funding to run a day school, if a certain number of teaching hours were given to secular education, by a certified teacher. This, apparently, the local community succeeded in achieving, as they are noted as applying for Government aid that year. According to later reports, the school had only 10 children — and that may have been the reason it ceased being funded by the Council for a period, until 1864, and indeed shut completely until sometime after June 1861. In those days, the subsidy paid only part of the teacher’s salary. The rest had to come from school fees, often a shilling a day per pupil. If children didn’t attend, or families couldn't afford the shilling, the school had no money.

Enter John Bollard, newly-married in May 1861 and settling in Avondale with his wife by July that year on land he leased from William Innes Taylor. He may have chatted with his neighbour in the Rosebank area Dr. Thomas Aickin about the fact that the school had shut down. Together, they made efforts to resurrect the school, and probably formed their own informal school committee — perhaps just two members — by July 1861. (Bollard was later awarded in 1911 for serving 50 straight years on the district’s school committee, hence how we know when the committee began.) By 1863, they may have been joined by merchant John Buchanan. They were definitely joined by Rev. Andrew Anderson by early 1864, who went on to be the first Presbyterian minister based at Avondale from 1865. The school committee sent in applications for funding to the Provincial Council in 1864, and by the following year had a fully funded school once again, based at the Presbyterian Church. By now, the district was developing rapidly, with settlement and farms increasing further west, talk of a proposed canal, the Pollen brickyard on Rosebank from around 1860 and the Gittos tannery from 1864. It all looked quite promising as far as progress for settlers in the Whau was concerned.

In 1867 another committee set-to and fundraised for the construction of a public hall. The hall, built just across the road from the Presbyterian Church and opened on 14 November 1867, came with a trust deed which expressly stated that it was intended for literary, scientific and educational purposes. The school moved there in 1868. The School Committee were not charged any rent for use of the hall, and the school was the major user, but whenever important community meetings or elections cropped up, the school from 1868-1882 would have to shut down for days — and find, on returning, their equipment and furniture damaged in some instances. The hall, the school committee complained to the Education Board, was cold and draughty, with both children and teachers often falling ill. Yet, the Hall Committee claimed they hadn’t enough funds to repair the hall, and said that grants offered by the Education Board weren’t enough.

With the Common Schools Act in 1868, the new Whau Educational District from 1869 became one of the first in the Auckland Province, and first on the Isthmus, to strike a separate special rate for educational purposes. The school committee may have utilised the now-departed Rev. Anderson’s house built at the corner of Layard and Cracroft (Crayford) Streets as a residence for the school’s head teacher from 1869. The education board purchased his land after a mortgage default in 1875, which was much of what is now the present site of Avondale Primary School. Henry Hasall’s land alongside was purchased in January 1882. Education Board architect Henry Allright designed the first purpose-built schoolhouse for the district erected there, which opened in May 1882.

Along the way, there have been some interesting characters associated with those early days of the first Whau schools. Archibald H Spicer (1830-1883) was born in Vizagapatama, India, his father a captain of the 12th Regiment, Madras Native Infantry, of the East India Company. He arrived in New Zealand in 1851, and finally settled for a time in the Whau district in the early-to-mid 1860s. His estate here, close to the corner of New North and Blockhouse Bay Roads, was apparently the home of wandering peacocks. Spicer is listed as a teacher of the Whau School in Provincial Council records, after a man named Knox who had a dispute with Rev. Anderson over pay, but Spicer may well have helped Bollard and Aickin earlier than that date.

Another was Samuel Frederick Mayhew. For some reason, the Education Board insisted in 1881 that the teacher Joseph Glenny be replaced by Mayhew. The Whau School Committee were outraged, but were told that what the Education Board said, went. So, it was Mayhew who was the first teacher of the new school in May 1882. Later that year, however, he left Auckland in the wake of scandal and bad debts owed to Queen Street merchants. He popped up in Blenheim, 1886, charged with embezzling funds from the Spring Creek Rifles (he got off the charge, on appeal and a technicality). His wife Alice sued for divorce in 1897, on the grounds that she hadn’t heard from her husband since 1882, he’d committed adultery with women unknown to her, and had been living with another woman as his wife in Sydney.

The Whau School Committee’s misgivings, after all, proved correct.

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